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While reading a book, I came across the following sentence: 人間では決して勝ちえることのできぬ存在

Even with the translation (fan-translated) "It was an opponent which humanity could not overcome", I am unable to understand it.

Let's focus on a slightly simpler version: 人間は勝ちえることできない存在. I have highlighted the two parts that are confusing me:

  • 人間は ... I cannot find on Particles: に vs. で a case which makes sense for this use of で, and am unsure what influence it has on the translation compared to its omission 人間は勝ちえること...
  • ...ちえることできない存在: I do not understand this use of の. It seems to neither indicate possession/adjectival, nor an のだ/んだ explanation.

Finally, I am unsure I understand how to properly assess the "direction" of the 勝ちえることできない, i.e. whether to translate "an opponent which humanity could not overcome" or "an opponent who could not overcome humanity". Indeed, it is my understanding that using 人間は rather than 人間が makes 人間 the subject of the sentence in the first case, and the subject of the verb in the second case (ex: 象さんは鼻が長い > "About elephants, their trunk is long"). Since there is no explicit object を in the sentence, I would be tempted to translate coarsely "About/Towards humanity, a being where winning is impossible", which is ambiguous as to the "direction" of 勝ちえることできない.

Thank you for helping.

Full context:

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  • I think you're missing the end of the sentence. If it corresponds to your translation, then it would probably be 〜存在だった。
    – jogloran
    Dec 17 '20 at 9:46
  • @jogloran Thanks for your comment. Other than having forgotten the 在 at the end (I have made an edit to correct), the sentence does indeed end on 存在. See edit for context. But maybe だった is silently implied ? Dec 17 '20 at 9:54
  • I learned earlier this year from this website that ending a sentence with a noun is a high-school level grammar that changes the whole sentence into a type of modifier on that noun, iirc. I think the grammar is correct, although advanced.
    – Ragaroni
    Dec 17 '20 at 13:41
  • humanity could not overcome <- To mean this, 勝ちえることのできぬ would be redundant. (~える and ~ことのでき(る) both mean "can"). It should be either 勝ちえない存在 or 勝つことのできない存在(=勝つことができない存在), no? (or less formally 勝てない存在)
    – Chocolate
    Dec 17 '20 at 15:31
  • @Chocolate I agree with the remark on redundancy, it also puzzles me, but I have no clue as to the reason / nuance it may add. I presented the fan-made translation as it is the only point of reference I have. Thank you Dec 17 '20 at 15:37
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ことのできない is common phrase. "の" here is same as "が".

"の" is Kakujoshi and works as "Nominative"(Shukaku) here.
In japanese, 格助詞である ”の” は主格として働くことがあります。

Kakujoshi "の" (in Japanese)

”友だち が/の 来る日”
The day my friend comes.

ことのできない is same as ことができない here.
Then, "勝つことのできない” means You cannot win/overcome.
So, "勝つことのできない存在” means An entity or something that you cannot win.

Next, 勝ちえる means They can overcome/beat or they have a chance to overcome.
So, ”勝ちえることのできない存在” is An entity that you cannot have any chance to overcome.

人間では or 人間には in this case has a nuance that Human beings never overcome it, but some exsistance but human beings like monster or god could overcome it.

Subject + では or Subject + には are usually used in Negative sentence.
Besides, it implies other exsistence that can implement it.

には/ではできない仕事だ。
This is a work he cannot resolve. Or This is too tough work for him.

This sentence implies someone who can do it because では/には is used.

By the way, if I translated it, "It is an entity that human beings absolutely never have any chance to overcome." or "It is an entity that human beings abolutely never overcome no matter what happaned."

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  • Thank you ! It is much clearer now, I am just missing one point: how do we know that 勝つことのできない存在 is "An entity or something that you cannot win." rather than "An entity or something that cannot win." (which has the opposite meaning !) ? Dec 18 '20 at 7:56
  • Japanese often omit a subject like 私(I), あなた(you), 彼(he), 人(people/human). So, you have to figure out it from the context or the words. In this case, "overcome" should act on someone or something. In addition, There should be Subject for "勝つ(overcome)", that is "Who overcomes whom?". However, what can be subject or object in this case is only 存在(Entity) in this sentence. Which is omitted? Entity overcomes whom? or who overcomes Entity? Then, you have to decide which is correct from the context.
    – Kay
    Dec 18 '20 at 17:25
  • In this case, "存在" is too much stronger than anyone. So, someone is the subject, and "存在"(Entity) is the object for "overcome". But, in this book, the subject is clearly written. "人間には" The subject is "人間" (Human beings) and the verb is "勝つ"(overcome), and the object is "存在"(Entity).
    – Kay
    Dec 18 '20 at 17:25
  • Besides, both Subject and Object can be omitted, but in my opinion, Subject is easier to be omitted than Object.
    – Kay
    Dec 18 '20 at 18:42
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I want to try an answer, although I am only in my third/fourth year of Japanese.

For your first question, I would reference this page for an academic description of "dewa" https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/では The influence it has on your sentence is to emphasize that it is all of humanity, not just a typical example of humanity. Without the で particle, it could be read "It was an opponent which people in general could not overcome."

For the second question, the の transforms the proceeding words into a noun, just like こと. I'm not sure why ことの are both used. I'm going to guess dramatic emphasis.

For a more literal translation, I would go with 人間では決して勝ちえることのできぬ存在 "As for all of humanity, never making victory can never exist." So I'm thinking the fan translation is a little off. Perhaps: "It was an opponent which humanity must overcome."

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  • 2
    What led you to interpret it as a double negative?
    – Leebo
    Dec 18 '20 at 6:17
  • @Leebo it was my dictionary that said "決して" meant "never", and then the ぬ at the end. My first thought was that 決して should be translated as "able", and I think that would have gotten me closer. Is this right? I'll ask in a separate question.
    – Ragaroni
    Dec 18 '20 at 8:29
  • 2
    決して is an adverb that basically means 絶対に, but it is only used when paired with a negative verb, unlike 絶対に. So it's not negative in meaning on its own.
    – Leebo
    Dec 18 '20 at 8:38

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